As he helped speed Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s embattled nomination toward a vote this week, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, declared that the Senate was approaching “rock bottom” and needed to right itself.
Grassley, 85 and a senator for nearly four decades, said it was time for “mending things so we can do things in a collegial way, that the United States Senate ought to do.”
That sentiment, from a lawmaker who fiercely defended Kavanaugh and helped block former president Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick Garland, drew skepticism or scorn from many in the political world. It also felt like a glaring understatement: Brute partisanship in the Senate is a symptom of a much larger national contagion.
To the right and left alike, Kavanaugh’s nomination appears less like a final spasm of division — a sobering trauma, followed by calm resolution — than an event that deepens the national mood of turbulence. The country is gripped by a climate of division and distrust rivaled by few other moments in the recent past.
This time, historic grievances around race and gender are coming to a boil under the eye of a president who is dismissive of the concept of national unity, with a political base that celebrates the combative way in which he has upended Washington. Trump campaigned as a rough-speaking warrior against the political establishment and its consensus economic policies, and his supporters have mainly applauded him for governing the same way.
Beyond government, the country’s collective institutions — including the news media, the clergy, and even professional sports and the entertainment industry — are so weakened and distrusted that no obvious balm appears within reach. The Supreme Court, long a contested body, may now be viewed emphatically by one side as an institution under shadow.
Rather than calls for comity from political leaders like Grassley, a feeling of apprehension has pervaded the highest levels of American politics.
Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of American history at Yale University, said that since the nation’s founding there had only been “a handful of other times that have been this ugly,” including the run-up to the Civil War.
“There are moments in American history where we get such extreme polarization that the government no longer functions the way it’s supposed to function,” Freeman said: “It’s a virtually systemic abandonment of norms, to a degree that I find alarming.”
The great trend in American politics has been not toward muting political disagreements but rather toward confronting them — sometimes detonating them at deafening volume over social media. Trump, in turn, became president in large part by mastering the existing divisions at the heart of the country’s culture, exploiting fissures around identity, ethnicity, sex, religion, and class to forge a ferociously loyal coalition that represents a minority of the country but votes with disproportionate power.
But those divisions have only grown since 2016, and Trump has continued to embrace and aggravate them, from his equivocal response to a white-supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Va., to his mockery this week of the #MeToo movement and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who says Kavanaugh attempted to rape her as a teenager. At a rally in Mississippi on Tuesday, the president flouted the pretense that support for the judge could coexist with authentic concern for victims of sexual assault.
Trump went far beyond questioning Ford’s account or defending Kavanaugh, instead ridiculing her and stoking the resentments between genders. He warned voters in Mississippi that lying women could come forward to falsely accuse their loved ones of sexual misconduct: “Think of your son,” he urged them. “Think of your husband.”
Even Republicans who back Trump’s agenda have expressed a kind of impotent unease — even agony — over his role as a proud divider.
Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a philosophical conservative who supports Kavanaugh, gave an emotional speech on the Senate floor addressing the #MeToo movement and acknowledging: “We all know that the president cannot lead us through this time.”
And it was in ominous terms that Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, explained her decision to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination.
“I believe we’re dealing with issues right now that are bigger than the nominee and how we ensure fairness and how our legislative and judicial branch can continue to be respected,” she said, adding: “We’re at a place where we need to begin thinking about the credibility and integrity of our institutions.”
If the Supreme Court faces new questions about its integrity, with Kavanaugh as the cornerstone of a conservative majority, it would only worsen the court’s steady decline in public estimation. A Gallup survey measuring perceptions of major institutions found the court afflicted by the same collapse in trust afflicting the presidency, Congress, the media, banks, schools, and churches. At the start of the millennium, half the country said it had substantial confidence in the Supreme Court; this year, that fraction was 37 percent.
In Gallup’s 2018 survey, the only government institutions earning powerful support from the public were the military and the police.
And those institutions, too, have fallen prey to partisanship and cultural conflict: Trump has thundered against football players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence, accusing them of disrespecting the flag and the armed forces. In a sign of Trump’s passionate bond with his overwhelmingly white political base, nine in 10 of his supporters said they disapproved of athletes’ protests, according to New York Times polling. About three-fifths of Americans who don’t support Trump view the protests favorably.
The president’s supporters also, with near unanimity, disbelieve Ford’s account of being assaulted by Kavanaugh in the 1980s. Among voters who disapprove of Trump, just 6 percent disbelieve the allegations.
There is little obvious appetite on the left or right for rebuilding some semblance of bipartisanship in Washington, or in lowering the temperature of political debate. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, drew eye-rolling reactions in both parties for suggesting this week that the Senate could return the standard for ending debate on a Supreme Court nomination to 60 votes — a threshold abolished last year by Republicans, after Democrats ended it for lower-court nominations under Obama.
For her part on Friday, as she announced her support for Kavanaugh, Senator Susan Collins of Maine lamented the country’s “great disunity” and an impulse, among different tribes of Americans, toward “extreme ill will toward those who disagree with them.”
“One can only hope that the Kavanaugh nomination is where the process has finally hit rock bottom,” Collins said.